I was still reeling from that simple statement when something in my mind finally clicked into place and I felt a chill go down my spine. "You're the girl in the picture," I whispered.
With a fluid motion she rolled herself off the sofa and me and walked over to a magnificent old oak desk in one corner. She rummaged in a drawer for a moment and pulled out a flat sheet which she handed to me as she sat down alongside. I found myself staring again at the half-remembered relic from my youth. It was a true 3D photograph; held in my hands was a window into another world long gone. I shivered involuntarily at the resonances I felt.
"Ooh," said Kiri approvingly. "Goosebumps."
There, third from the left in the front row, was a crimson-haired girl with giant green eyes who was unmistakably Kiri, though possibly a half-dozen years younger. Next to her was a boy of about fourteen with straight, solid black hair and a cheerful, open face. Several other children were on either side. In the back row were the adults I remembered, apparently in their thirties, and a much older woman who I recognized as Aunt Dory. They were all posed on the steps of an impossibly ornate building of rather exotic design. Kiri pointed to the adults.
"Those were your parents," she said softly. She pointed to the boy next to her. "And that was their son, Prince Wilorian. That boy is you, Will." I started to say something, but she gently placed a finger on my lips. "I think we need to start at the beginning."
"My real name is Romikor Mikiria; Romikor is my family name. Our home world is called Deshtiris, which is a planet of the star Exor, about thirty-five light-years from Earth. You know it by another name, of course. Your parents were the Emperor and Empress of Deshtiris; that's the royal palace you see in the background of the picture. Your aunt, whose real name was Darita, was one of their oldest and most loyal retainers."
"My own father was Romikor Tenako. At that time he was court physician to the royal family as well as a renowned researcher in his own right. He and his wife were on close terms with your parents, as were most of the palace household. It was all one happy family," she added bitterly.
"Then something terrible happened and things began to come apart. My parents had a daughter, who they adored. One day she was killed in an accident, the kind of very stupid and unnecessary accident that children are usually killed in, and it did something to my father. People told me later that he became secretive, disappearing into his research facilities for long periods of time. He broke off most social contacts, and even avoided your parents, his closest friends for so many years. My mother was worried, then terrified, but could do nothing."
"And then I was born, and it became evident that he had genetically modified me during the first few weeks of the pregnancy. Apparently in a misguided attempt to protect me from the kind of random accident that cost him his first daughter, he had 'improved' my survivability by giving me various physical enhancements, such as increased agility and strength. The eyes and hair were unanticipated side effects."
"All of this was a serious violation of our science statutes, and your father--the Emperor--had no alternative but to remove him from his post and let the courts handle the case. He wound up imprisoned for a brief term, and my mother, who was already in a state of emotional shock, committed suicide over the disgrace. That was forty-six years ago."
I stared at her. "Forty-six--" I choked. "How--" To her credit, she ignored me and continued.
"Your parents took me in and raised me as if I were their own, and the two of us grew up together for the next sixteen years. My father was released at the end of his sentence but instead of returning to me he disappeared without a trace. What has been heard of him since are only rumors, and of a dark and terrifying kind."
She paused for a few moments, and I said nothing. I realized that she had needed to tell me this as much as I had wanted to hear it. Finally she continued.
"Before I come to the part of this story that is hardest for me to tell, I have to fill you in on some of our own history. You probably wonder how inhabitants of another planet thirty-five light-years from Earth can be identical to humans. The answer is simple: they are humans, and they came from Earth, but not of their own free will."
"There is another star system, also thirty-five light-years from the Exor system, called Bashti. Circling it is the planet Qozernon. Like Deshtiris, it has a climate and atmosphere very similar to Earth's; in fact, Deshtiris and Qozernon are sometimes referred to as the Twin Planets in spite of the vast distance between them. Thousands of years ago, both of these systems were ruled by an alien race called the Virrin. Apparently the Virrin chose to 'borrow' a large number of humans from Earth at that time and settled both planets with them. They were treated well, but nonetheless were slaves."
"Then one day the Virrin simply left. They shut down their equipment, destroyed their technology and records, boarded their ships and departed. One hundred and twenty-three years later a supernova was seen in the southwestern quadrant of the evening sky. Supposedly no one knows what happened, but the Virrin have never returned. Now free, humans have prospered on both planets, eventually rediscovering the technology for interstellar space travel and trading peacefully with each other for centuries. All of this was developed by humans on their own; no usable trace of Virrin technology has ever been found."
"Now that's out of the way, so let's continue. Sixteen years after you and I were born, everything suddenly went very wrong. A movement seemed to spring up out of nowhere, calling itself the Brizal party, led by a previously unknown man by the name of Krigghin Teyn. It specialized in recruiting people who by their own choice had no future: school dropouts, malcontents who couldn't hold down steady jobs, and the like. But somehow it also had tremendous financial resources, and it grew far faster than anyone expected until it was too late."
"One day our lives were routine, sun-soaked, filled with love. The next day your parents were dead and I fled Deshtiris with you and the retainer Darita just ahead of a Brizal mob. I had been building a ship as a hobby, an early predecessor of this one, and fortunately it worked when it had to and we managed to escape to the Bashti system, to Qozernon. We had been there for about a week with the Qozernan ambassador's family when one night Brizal assassins came within inches of killing you. We both realized that they would never rest as long as a potential heir to the throne still lived."
"We talked about it for several days and nights, and we both finally concluded that there was only one solution. You had to be hidden until there was hope of restoring things to their former state. Our worlds have always kept a close watch on Earth, which we regard as a kind of parent planet, and we had the idea of hiding you there as an ordinary Earthling. But to do that it was necessary to disguise you so well that the Brizali would have no way to find you." She stopped again, and I saw that her eyes were glistening.
"Using medical technology originally developed for treating mental disorders, I suppressed--or removed--your memories, so that you couldn't accidentally give yourself away. I can't tell you how hard that was for me, Will, and only because you insisted that it was the only possible way could I compel myself to operate the device." She stopped again for several seconds before she forced herself to continue. "I loved you, and I had to erase you," she finally said in a strangled voice. "I deleted you like a goddam computer file." At that point her self control gave way and she put her head in her hands, sobbing uncontrollably. I could only put my arm around her and hold her, feeling utterly helpless, until the storm passed.
"Do you understand now?" she said finally, looking up at me. "I don't know if it's you I love or the person I knew thirty years ago. That person is gone, and I'm so afraid that I'm just using you as a substitute for someone who no longer exists."
I ran a hand through her hair. "I don't care who you love, Kiri. I love you, and I'll wait as long as I have to for you to decide what you want." She sniffled and wiped her eyes.
"Will my memories ever return?" I asked gingerly, receiving a helpless shrug in return.
"I don't know. Our technology isn't advanced enough yet for that. We can suppress memories, but getting them back is still beyond us. Maybe they will, maybe they won't." She stared at the floor.
"There was no other way, Kiri," I said quietly. "It wasn't your fault."
"I know that," she answered sadly. "It still hurts like hell, though." For a while she was silent.
"Once on Earth," she finally continued, "I set you and Darita up in a house of your own and provided her with plenty of cash. Later, when you were old enough to start poking around, I hacked up the necessary computer records so that you'd appear to have a past but wouldn't learn too much about it." I smiled ruefully as I thought of the ingenious labyrinth she had devised for anyone trying to investigate too far.
"Darita already knew English, so after staying with her for a few months to make arrangements I headed back to Qozernon. Since then I've returned every few years to make sure you were doing okay. Do you remember a student who took a semester of math with you in your junior year, by the way? Blonde hair, brown eyes, looked sort of like me? Attended a few concerts with you?" I nodded, recalling her vaguely. It was a long time ago. "Well, you're talking to her right now," she said with a wan smile. For about the tenth time that day my jaw must have hit the floor with a thud.
"By the way," she added, "Darita told me about you finding the picture. I chewed her out for it, of course, since she wasn't supposed to have anything incriminating with her on Earth, but I realized then just how hard it must have been for her to be marooned on a strange world like that. I took the picture for safekeeping, but in return brought her back to Qozernon several times while you were away at summer camp and the like."
"Once you graduated from high school, I started taking her back to Qozernon for weeks at a time, in fact. That was when you thought she was 'traveling.' I even offered to let her 'die' on Earth so that she could come back and stay with us permanently, but she insisted on returning periodically, just so that she could continue to see you once in a while. When she did finally die, it was on Earth, as you know yourself. She had told me previously that she preferred it that way. She was a very brave woman, Will. You owe her more than you can ever imagine." We were both silent for a few minutes.
"Wait a minute," I suddenly exclaimed. "Darita already knew English?"
"I told you that we've regarded Earth as a kind of parent planet for a long time," she explained. "In fact, it's not that unusual for some of us to drop in for a visit now and then. Your literature, arts, and to a lesser extent sciences are often very interesting. I can't tell you how much entertainment value they sometimes have as well," she added with a wry snicker.
"Like Brinkman's super physics class?" I suggested. To my astonishment, she blushed beet red.
"Actually, he and I go back a long way," she confessed after a moment's embarrassed hesitation. "In fact, I almost got him fired the first time I took his graduate seminar. Did you ever hear how he once got into trouble for, uh, well, sleeping with one of his students?"
I thought about it for a moment. "I think there was something back in the late seventies I heard about once." Those were innocent times, I reflected; these days he had a reputation for unashamedly chasing anything female. Then I did a double-take. "That was you?"
She looked sheepish. "I was young and impulsive then" ("then" seemed a singularly inappropriate word, I thought to myself), "and in those days he was rather a dashing young rake. We hit it off really well. We got careless and were seen out together more than we should have, and word got around that we were sleeping together. I have a feeling he did some bragging, too. Anyway, he nearly got canned and we had to cool it, but since then I've gone back and signed up for his seminar again about every six or seven years, and no one's ever caught on. All I had to do was use a different name and make sure my hair was a new color each time," she finished derisively.
"Are you-- still--" I said stupidly. She glared at me in return.
"Don't be a jerk. All we exchange any more are equations. He knows who I am and enjoys working with someone who isn't just trying to build a lucrative career doing DoD research work. I've even taken him up in the Futaba. Remember his famous submeson hyperstring breakthrough? Guess where that came from?"
"You don't mean Brinkman's theories actually came from you?" I asked skeptically.
"Well, I think it was more like a two way street," was her perfectly serious answer. "I've helped him get past some roadblocks, and in turn he's provided some real insights that our own theoreticians hadn't resolved. He has quite a remarkable mind, really. At least twice he's agreed to suppress a major discovery after I showed him what the results had been on our own world. He developed some equations once that made my hair stand on end. I realized on looking them over that if anyone ever tried to verify them experimentally they'd open a space-time rift that would swallow up half your solar system. He was very glad I caught that one."
"I take it you passed the course," I said dryly.
MIKIRIA. Copyright © 1998, 2000 Lamont Downs. All rights
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